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Before I began photographing the stained glass windows of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Roxbury, MA, the Rector Monrelle Williams invited a longtime parishoner, Ms. Leslie Gore, to share the church history with me. An active member since a child in the 1950s, she described Sunday School classes of 300-500 children, the different guilds, the cotillions that took place, the plays produced in the lower parish hall, and much more. Finally, I asked her, if there was one thing that she wanted people outside of her congregation to know about St. Cyprian’s what would it be. With a beautiful smile, she said, “I’d want them to know that this place is home. A beautiful place to be. A place where people encompass you.” As I photographed the stained glass windows, I thought of the children she described including her own. As they raced about the church, sang in the choir, and participated in other social and cultural activities, around them they would have seen themselves and learned about their history, American history, rather uniquely.

St. Cyprian’s is located at 1073 Tremont Street. While the physical structure was built between 1922 and 1924, the actual coming together of people for worship began much earlier. They were people who had emigrated to the U.S. from the former British West Indies and African Americans migrants from the southern states. Those who moved to Massachusetts primarily settled in Boston and Cambridge. It was the first decade of the 20th Century. It was a period of great change, opportunity and of racism. While many of these peoples wanted to attend existing Episcopal churches, they were rebuffed both overtly and subtly. In May 1910, a group of people decided to meet for worship in a private home. As numbers grew, they began to worship in other churches when those churches were not holding service. It was a nomadic existence, and again one where things were done – e.g. the fumigation of one church after they had left – thus spurring people, under the leadership of Reverend David Leroy Ferguson to raise the funds to buy land and build their own church. A home was created. And in that home there is lovely stained glass with traditional Christian imagery depicting figures from the bible …

… and then at some point the community of St. Cyprian’s made a decision to depart from the traditional practice of using biblical figures and to instead highlight black people, men and women, “who have made significant contributions to the liberation and empowerment of our people. … Our stained glass windows, therefore do not serve to beautify the building or to enhance its ambience, rather they serve to educate us about the outstanding contribution of men and women to the betterment of our community.” “It is my hope,” a former rector concludes in a descriptive pamphlet, “that as we celebrate their lives and deeds that we may be inspired to follow their blessed footsteps to make our community and nation a better place for all.

Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman

Mary McLeod Bethune

Phyllis Wheatley

Phyllis Wheatley

The images span the past into the present.

Richard Allen and James Forten

Richard Allen and James Forten

Prince Hall

Prince Hall

A booklet titled Voices and Victors in the Struggle features the biographies of each of these people. And thanks to physical libraries and of course the internet, if you are unfamiliar with the historical significance of these folks you can choose to discover why they have been recognized in this church.

Marcus Garvey

Martin Luther King Jr and Frederick Douglass

Martin Luther King Jr and Frederick Douglass

Absalom Jones

Alexander Crumwell

Alexander Crumwell

The Rt. Rev. John Melville Brugess

The Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess

St. Cyprian’s was built by a people rising above discrimination. Over time and deliberately, members sought to use design as a tool for empowerment and celebration of the achievements of people of color from many different backgrounds.

St. Cyprian

St. Cyprian

It was inspiring to learn of this church and its founders, and to see firsthand the beauty and history shared through its windows.

Sources & Additional Reading

About St. Cyprian’s

 

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Visit the website of artist Cedric Harper. Scroll through the sculpture page. Be patient. There you will find The Book of Truth.

As described on the site, it is a ceramic sculpture with a tile base. Inside a large black box is a small black box with a white book. Next to the book is a line of small white trees glistening against a dark red sky. Stark. Beautiful. Visually compelling. Mysterious. What truths reside in that book? During a recent conversation, Cedric would not only tell me about the book but how life, especially its challenges, had shaped his unique artistic expression that combines, as he describes, language, symbols and dreams.

photo courtesy of the artist

I first met Cedric at the Riverside Gallery at the Cambridge Community Center.  We were exhibiting in the same show.  I would later tell him that he reminded me of my brothers.  He is a tall, slim, African American man. Very humble.  And like them someone too easy to underestimate, a sentiment I was reminded of when he described how surprised people can be to discover that he, this quiet gentleman, has created such bold work.

photo courtesy of artist

photo courtesy of artist

Having seen his work in person and online, I was drawn to his use of color and texture and his unique juxtaposition of words and images. Why particular words, images, even the use of such colors?  “They come to me in a dream.  I pick up the broken pieces that others throw away as trash.  In my dreams I see the completed piece.  And then all I have to do is make that image real.”

photo courtesy of artist

photo courtesy of artist

Born in 1957, raised in Kansas City, Kansas, member of a large family, he remembers how his parents stressed working hard. “You had to believe in yourself to achieve success. There were always stories about that.” After college at the University of Kansas-Lawrence, he met a nice fellow, and moved to France for a year.  In 1982 he returned to Kansas where “I met the love of my life.” Eventually they moved to Massachusetts where Cedric would work in healthcare as an advocate for individuals with disabilities.  He would do so for thirty years before becoming a full-time artist. “But when did you actually start producing art?” I asked, and he said quietly, “When my lover was dying.”

photo courtesy of artist

photo courtesy of artist

Cedric’s lover had contracted HIV. As they tried to figure out next steps, they set him up in a home on Cape Cod. Cedric commuted but eventually his lover’s condition worsened and Cedric took leave to take care of him.  “When I moved to the Cape, that’s when I began making art. You know how in Provincetown there are so many shops and they sell box kits for people to put their shells in and other trinkets. To keep my sanity, I started buying the boxes and putting them together and painting them. The paintings became more elaborate. People started paying attention.  They encouraged me.”

photo courtesy of artist

photo courtesy of artist

The pieces evolved.  “Provincetown is a mecca for people throwing out great trash. Beautiful pieces of wood and other materials. If some object called to me, I would bring it home, break it down. Later I’d have vivid dreams about the finished piece specific to the object I had picked up.  That was the hard part. Figuring out how to make that concept real.”

Cedric’s lover died April 7, 1994. “There were a lot of dishes broken that day,” he said with a gentle laugh.  Later he would add, “Art brought me back. Gave me perspective. Something to hold onto and communicate with.”

photo courtesy of the artist

Since then, his art has continued to evolve.  “I began reading books on ancient languages, studying heiroglyphs, and exploring how one translates pictures into language and vice versa.”

photo courtesy of the artist

“Exploring these ideas of language and symbols is what I want to do especially with something that already exists, that people have tossed away.  I can take it and make it my own. My inspiration comes from my imagination. There are no boundaries.”

See Cedric Harper’s artwork firsthand. His work will be on display this weekend, along with eight other fine artists, at the Riverside Gallery Exhibit, Words in our Work.  Opening reception is Sunday, February 28, 3:00-5:00 pm. The exhibit runs through March 2016.

As for what’s in The Book of Truth? The answers will be shared in a follow-up post. Take care.

Cedric Harper by Carol Moses

Artist Cedric Harper, Photo by Carol Moses

 

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Richard Lonsdale Brown was born in 1892 in Evanston, Illinois. When less than a year old, his parents moved to West Virginia. There he attended public school and then trained as a sign painter. After finishing trade school, he remained in West Virginia for five years, “and then being a journeyman sign painter I traveled through the mining districts of the state … My journeys took me almost altogether through the mountains where, when God made them, He placed scenery the equal of which, I think, cannot be found in all America.”

Richard Lonsdale Brown, 1912

“It was there I believe that my love for landscape painting was awakened. When not painting signs I was doing what I could to reproduce the scenery of the mountains and valleys, the rivers and the streams on canvas.” Brown shared those words in a 1913 article that appeared in the New York Sun.

Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, circa 1910-1920

Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, circa 1910-1920

Mary White Ovington (1865-1951), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, remembered first learning of Richard Lonsdale Brown in 1910.  In her memoirs, she recounts it was during a meeting with Oswald Garrison Villard (1872-1949).”In 1910, when Mr. Villard and I were working in the newly organized NAACP, he gave me a letter from the artist George de Forest Brush, asking me if I would take up the business mentioned in it. It told of a young colored artist, Richard Brown, from Charleston, West Virginia, who had recently come to New York with some excellent sketches.”

George De Forest Brush

George De Forest Brush

“I called upon Mr. Brush in his picturesque studio on MacDougall Alley and saw his pictures. They were lovely things, trees and melting skies, alive in form and color. Mr. Brush was deeply impressed with them.  ‘He is no more than a boy,’he said, ‘and he came into my studio, shy, discouraged. He had brought his sketches under his arm to New York, and when not in one of our great galleries was spending his time trying to sell them. No one wanted even to look at them. He was poor; he was colored. Could one have greater handicaps?’ Mr. Brush welcomed him to his studio and looked with interest and appreciation at his work. ‘Can I ever be an artist?’ Richard asked when had shown all he had. The answer was, ‘You are an artist.'”

Brown would exhibit his work in the Ovington Brothers Gallery in New York, March 18-23, 1912.  It would showcase paintings done in West Virginia before he was 18 years old and in the hills of New Hampshire while under the tutelage of Mr. Brush. Mary Maclean, a writer with the New York Times wrote a profile of the young artist for the newspaper. The article appeared in March, just before the exhibit, helping to make it a great success.

It was estimated that 2,500 people attended. Twenty-six pictures were for sale and sixteen were sold including little sky sketches. The young man charmed people with his demeanor as well as the quality of his work. Collectors who reportedly purchased his work included Jacob H. Schiff, Edward Warburg, Mr. Coster, and celebrity Miss Mary Garden.

Art Critic Joseph Edgar Chamberlin quoted in the New York Age, March 1912

Maclean’s profile would also be printed in the April 1912 issue of the NAACP’s The Crisis Magazine for which Richard Lonsdale Brown produced the cover.

Cover Art by Richard Lonsdale Brown

Ovington remembered, “Crowds came and he had many purchasers. The prices for most of the pictures were high, and so Richard would paint little cloud sketches in the evening and sell them the next day. He made over a thousand dollars. We all hoped he would use it for study; I had plans for Paris but the money went where his affections dictated. He spent it on a sister, who he used to tell me, was more talented than he, in a vain attempt to cure her of what proved to be an incurable disease.”

by Richard Lonson Brown

by Richard Lonsdale Brown

White and black publications of the period described him as “the rising young artist.” Instead of Paris, Brown would study in Boston, living at the Robert Gould Shaw House. Ovington remembers him producing posters for W. E. B. Du Bois’s Pageant. He exhibited in private homes. He would eventually travel down South. Before he left, he would confide to Ovington that he could not paint as he used to. He’d begun painting landscapes but was now intrigued by figures. As he studied those figures he was discouraged at how society beat them down. He was excited by what was happening in Harlem and hoped to be a part of it. “Not that I have forgotten what I want to do most of all, ” he would tell her. “Someday, when I am the artist I hope to be, I want to return and paint those West Virginia hills.”

Mt. Monadnock, originally purchased by Jacob H. Schiff

While it is unclear if he returned to those West Virginia hills, he would not be part of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, nor would Ovington see him again after that last encounter. In 1915, he would exhibit his work in the Washington, DC home of Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford.  He died September 23, 1917. Posted in the March 1918 issue of The Crisis was the following passage: “The parents of the late Richard Lonsdale Brown write us that they are living in Muskogee, Okla, and that the young artist died at their home and under their care.”

by Richard Lonson Brown

A Bend in the Stream, originally purchased by Albert Andriesse

While it appears that the three paintings above and the 1912 Crisis cover are his only surviving work, clearly he produced many other sketches and paintings during his brief lifetime. So perhaps somewhere out there are Brown’s little cloud sketches, scenes of melting skies and his West Virginia mountains.

 

Sources and Additional Readings

Negro Youth Amazes Artists By His Talent, New York Times, March 1912

Richard Lonsdale Brown Biography by the Indiana Illustrators and Cartoonists

Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder (pp. 75-76)

Detailed descriptions of his three known paintings

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